TORONTO — Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized to First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities on Monday for the “brutalities” suffered at residential schools, calling it one of the most “shameful chapters” in Canada’s history.
“I apologize for the province’s silence in the face of abuses and deaths at residential schools,” Wynne said at the Ontario legislature as residential school survivors looked on.
“And I apologize for the fact that the residential schools are only one example of systemic, intergenerational injustices inflicted upon indigenous communities.”
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The formal apology was part of Ontario’s response to the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found that thousands of children were physically and sexually abused at residential schools, and more than 300 died.
There were 18 residential schools for indigenous children in Ontario, starting in 1832. The last one didn’t close until 1991.
“The residential school system set out to ‘take the Indian out of the child’ by removing indigenous children from their homes and systematically stripping them of their languages, cultures laws and rights,” she said.
“By adopting policies designed to eradicate your cultures and extinguish your rightful claims, previous generations set in motion a force so destructive that its impact continues to reverberate in our time.”
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Regional Chief Isadore Day talked spoke of the “unspeakable abuse” suffered by residential school survivors and its impact on their children and grandchildren.
“The vast majority of us as First Nations people across this land can speak of the direct impacts of this dark legacy,” he said. “Yes, many of us have lived in the direct darkness and shadows of the evil that was so evident in so many of those schools.”
Andrew Wesley, a residential school survivor, said it took a long time before he could speak about his pain, and even longer before his wife convinced him that he had to embrace reconciliation.
“I was taken away. I was beaten up, but I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I reconcile to the government and to the church,” asked Wesley.
“But, because of my wife and her strength, I started to understand what reconciliation is all about. And I started to understand more that I have to talk about the abuse and be able to release the pain that I was carrying.”
Wesley got a standing ovation for his emotional plea to work together to heal the wounds of the past.
“We’re telling you the truth because we’re tired of being hurt,” he said.
“When a hunter is about to go out and get food for his family, the night before he goes out, he speaks to the game that he’s going to bring home to ask for forgiveness. From that mountain, we were given the power to honour the people that abused us, because we want to live a good life.”
Helen Cromarty of Thunder Bay, Ont., spent 11 years in two residential schools starting at age 5. She said the apology was welcome, but added that many First Nations communities still struggle with deep poverty and high suicide rates.
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“Having the government apologize and acknowledge the damage that has been done, I feel a little reprieve. I can live with it,” Cromarty said in an interview. “The things that I heard today, they’re very good. It was very emotional for me.”
Margaret Froh, president of the Metis Nation of Ontario, said reconciliation remains an elusive goal.
“Full reconciliation means recognition of our rights as a self-determining people, self-government for Metis or First Nations or Inuit people, and we’re a long way off from that,” she said.
“I think the critical piece is that we’re talking with each other and working to understand each other.”
Day said the apology would help “let the healing begin,” but warned too many indigenous people are still living – and dying – in poverty.
“The deepness of poverty that continues to kill our people, this is not right,” he said. “Our ancestors did not envision these present horrors when they agreed to share the wealth of this land.”
Ontario will spend $250 million over three years to help understand the legacy of residential schools, teach students “the truth about our shared history” and to create what Wynne called a culturally relevant and responsible justice system.
The province will also change the name of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs to the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.
The Truth and Reconciliation commission issued 94 recommendations, including reducing the number of aboriginal children in foster care and granting police greater independence to investigate crimes where government may be an interested party.